The skin is among the largest and one of the most important organs in the human body. It represents the first line of defence of the body; provides protection from mechanical impacts of the environment, limits the influence of variations in the temperature, prevents entrance of chemicals and microorganisms and restricts radiation effect. Skin damage affects all skin functions; therefore, wounds can compromise patient’s well-being, self-image, working capacity and independence. Due to all mentioned, a good wound management is necessary not only for the individual but also for the community. Herbal medicines have been used to accelerate wound healing since ancient times. Recently, scientists have been able to employ scientific methods to prove efficacy of many of these herbs and to get a better understanding of mechanisms of their actions. The popularity of herbal medicines may be explained by the perception that herbs cause minimal adverse effects. Preparations from traditional medicinal plants in wound management involve disinfection, debridement and the provision of suitable environment for natural healing process. In this chapter, the field of wound healing is briefly introduced. Further, the crucial information regarding plants, which are effectively used as wound healing agents in traditional medicine are gathered.
- wound physiology
- wound healing
- antimicrobial effect
- anti-inflammatory effect
- analgesic effect
The human body consists of several organs, of which the skin is the largest. The human skin plays an important role in the bodies defensive processes, since it represents the first line of defence . Two other important roles of the skin that also contribute to the defensive mechanisms are regulation and sensation. All mentioned provide a crucial set of functions such as enable protection from mechanical impacts and pressure, restrict the influence of temperature changes, lower the potential impact of microorganisms, limit radiation effects and diminish the entrance of different chemicals. Other important skin functions include the regulation of body temperature (e.g. through sweat glands and hair), control over the peripheral circulation and fluid balance, and in the synthesis of vitamin D. Through its extensive nerve cell network, it enables detection and relaying of changes in the environment (e.g. heat/cold, touch and pain). Damage to these networks is called a neuropathy and impairs the sensation of the mentioned functions in the affected areas. The preservation of skin integrity is due to all mentioned functions crucial for maintaining a healthy body .
A wound is trauma-induced defect of the human skin, involving a multitude of endogenous biochemical events and cellular reactions of the immune system . Wounds can compromise patient’s well-being, self-image, working capacity and independence. Effective wound management is therefore necessary not only for the individual patient, but has an important impact also on the community .
2. Mechanism of wound healing
Wound healing is an extremely complex and dynamic process, which includes replacing of devitalized and missing cellular structures and tissue layers. It reflects in a set of biochemical events that integrate into an organized cascade of processes to repair the damaged tissue . Immediately after injury, damaged vessels leak fluid, to which the body responds with haemostasis. Platelets start to aggregate in the wound bed and secrete multiple growth factors that contribute to an effective clot formation to hinder further loss of fluids from the defected area . Simultaneously with the launch of haemostatic mechanisms, the inflammatory phase is induced as well . It is characterized by local vasodilatation, platelet aggregation and phagocytosis, which together with the release of several cytokines, contribute to local inflammation of the wound site. Multiple chemokines, released by platelets, stimulate the immune and other cells (e.g. keratinocytes) to release growth factors and cytokines to regulate various signalling cascades that govern the inflammation and healing in general . Macrophages and other immune cells are stimulated and they migrate towards the wound to dispose cell debris and fight invading bacteria during the wound healing. Angiogenesis occurs at this phase and new blood vessels transport essential nutrients to the wound bed . The next phase in wound healing is the proliferative phase, which is characterized by granulation, wound contraction and epithelialisation. During granulation, fibroblasts form a bed of collagen, followed by the production of new capillaries . During wound contraction, myofibroblasts decrease the size of the wound by gripping the wound edges and pulling them into the wound interior mechanisms that resemble that of smooth muscle cells. After completion of respective processes, unneeded cells undergo apoptosis (controlled cell death) . Epithelialisation is initiated by keratinocytes proliferating and migrating across the wound site . Fibroblasts are activated and differentiated into myofibroblasts that (either indirectly by production of cytokines or directly) regulate other cells to grow and form new epithelial tissue over the wound site. The final wound healing phase is the remodelling phase, which is governed by the rearrangement of the newly formed extracellular matrix (ECM) using increasing amounts of type I collagen. The fibres of collagen rearrange their structures with increasing interfibrillar binding and diameter . The aim of wound treatment can be therefore described as a therapy to either shorten the time required for healing or to minimize the undesired consequences, for example extensive scarring . A general overview of the wound healing is shown in Figure 1.
3. Wound healing management
The complex course of the wound healing with the various physiological events that occur simultaneously, as well as consecutively, is vulnerable to possible external interferences (e.g. infections) on one side, as well enables modulation, and hence improvement of the healing performance, through active treatment solutions (e.g. multifunctional wound dressings) [12, 13]. Among the most desired activities are the ones providing anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, analgesic and antioxidant activities, regardless of the exact underlying mechanism of action .
Shortly after the injury, it is during the acute inflammatory response that different cytokines are formed. These are crucial for orchestration of the specific tissue growth, its repair, and hence regeneration . Nevertheless, if this inflammation step persists, it can negatively affect the wound process, namely it leads to vicious cycle of ongoing inflammation, preventing the wound to reach the remodelling phase. If this happens, delays in wound closure occur, which are often accompanied with the increased sensation of pain in the wounded area and its surroundings that can additionally hinder the healing process . Based on these findings about the wound healing physiology, a lot of research has focused on the development of therapeutic approaches that would provide an anti-inflammatory and pain relieving activity to wound dressings .
An important complication related to wound treatment and healing is infection. Infections are known to significantly increase the treatment costs of wound care , which are also the reason that different strategies are being developed for their prevention . Due to the impact of primary and secondary infections on the wound healing, which increase local inflammation, and hence lead to significant tissue destruction, prevention of their occurrence remains one of the main targets of wound dressing development . An ideal medicine for the prevention of wound infection should therefore have antimicrobial activities, while also stimulating the body’s natural immune system without damaging the surrounding healthy tissue .
Most wounds induce some level of pain sensation. Pain relates to patient’s discomfort, release of stress hormones and often reduces the patients’ overall quality of life. Hindered mobility and psychological issues connected with pain-induced stress lead to a less effective wound healing. According to McGuire et al. , chronic pain lowers the patients’ capability of healing, thereby prolonging the overall recovery process . Suitable and effective pain management can lead to an earlier release from the hospital, stress reduction and a general better reintegration into the community. All mentioned lead to facilitation of wound healing, while at the same time minimizing the risk for development of chronic pain, and finally in lowered treatment costs .
Part of the inflammation phase of wound healing causes also a coordinated influx of neutrophils to the wound site. One of the actions of neutrophils is also the activation of the so-called ‘respiratory burst’, which leads to productions of free radicals . These produce oxidative stress that results in lipid peroxidation, DNA damage, and enzyme inactivation (e.g. free-radical scavenger enzymes and others), even those whose main activity is to limit the effects of reactive oxygen species (ROS). Considering the above mentioned, it is clear that antioxidants may be of therapeutic use in several diseases that are connected with potential pathologic actions of oxidants, including the wound healing .
Apart from the above-mentioned wound healing aiding activities, others are also reported in literature, e.g. the astringent activity, stimulated epithelisation and effective hydration of the wound site . The most important properties of plant-derived medicines that are beneficial for the wound healing process are depicted in Figure 2 together with some examples of plants that were already proven for the mentioned use.
4. Plants with potential use in wound healing
For thousands of years, we looked to nature for various types of medicinal treatments and plant-based systems continue to play an essential role in the primary health care of many less-developed, as well as developing countries . Many plants and various preparations thereof have been used traditionally in relation to wound treatment, especially due to their immense potential to affect the wound healing process . Plant-derived extracts and/or isolates induce healing and tissue regeneration through multiple connected mechanisms, which often have a synergistic effect on the overall healing efficiency . Many plant-derived medicines (commonly called as phytomedicines) are affordable and cause minimal unwanted side effects . Nevertheless, increasing awareness of their potential activities, especially considering the possible combinations of various plant-derived molecules, which could induce toxic effects as well, points out the need for a systematic approach towards their evaluation before efficient introduction to wound care (or other fields of medicine) . In recent years, extensive research has been carried out in the area of wound healing and management through plant-derived medicinal products .
The following subchapters review the key details related to the potential use of medicinal plants in wound healing.
4.1. Groups of plant-derived molecules with beneficial effects on wound healing
When we describe the beneficial effects of plant-derived molecules on human health, mostly it is the secondary plant metabolites, producing pharmacological and/or toxicological effects, that we are discussing . Secondary metabolites are produced within the plants and are regarded as by-products of biochemical reactions in the plant cells. As such, these molecules are not part of any crucial daily functioning of the plant, hence are not important for the plants main biosynthetic and metabolic routes that yield products with major significance for the plant growth and/or development . Although this means that these molecules are not key to the plants basic functions, this does not mean that they do not importantly contribute to the success of the plants overall survival in its ecosystem. For example, several of them play important roles in the living plants´ protection, attraction or signalling . It seems that most plant species are capable of producing at least some of these compounds. But before we describe the most important groups of these secondary metabolites, let us first define the related term bioactive compounds. By definition, bioactive compounds in plants are compounds, produced by plants having pharmacological or toxicological effects in man and animals .
Bioactive compounds in plants can be classified considering different criteria. A presentation based on clinical function—their pharmacological or toxicological effects—is relevant for the clinician, pharmacist or toxicologist. The botanical approach on the other side considers the plant, from which they originate . Finally, the biochemical approach seems to be the most commonly used. The latter is based on their classification according to the metabolic (biochemical) pathway, by which they are produced . Using this approach, groups are more clearly understandable to most readers with at least basic knowledge in chemistry. The list of possible products is quite long, but since the focus of this chapter is on the ones with a beneficial effect on wound healing, we will focus on the groups, which could benefit the latter also in future clinical applications. The final subchapter summarizes some of the other groups, which might attract more researchers in the future.
4.1.1. Phenolic compounds
Phenolic compounds present secondary metabolites that are known to contribute to several plant functions . Apart from the important functions in relation to the plant host organism, phenolic metabolites (mostly called polyphenols in literature) are among the most important plant-derived molecules with a versatile range of potential beneficial biological properties on the human health . Phenolic compounds were shown to possess beneficial effect on the human health, regardless of the type of intake/application . For example, skin application can alleviate symptoms and inhibit the development of various skin disorders . Because, in nature, there is an abundant source of various polyphenols with proven effect on the skin and due to the already proven low toxicity for many of them, these type of compounds have a great potential in wound healing, including treatment of various skin damage (e.g. wounds and burns) . Polyphenols present an important source for future applications in wound care, ranging from reduction of minor skin problems (e.g., wrinkles, acne)  to more severe ones, such as cancer .
There are many available studies describing the potential of phenolic compounds to be used in treatment of various skin disorders, including reports about their beneficial influence on wound healing . Phenolic compounds are among the most known plant secondary metabolites mostly due to their broad spectrum of biological properties . The latter were shown to be related to their molecular structure, which consists of the main core, formed by at least one phenol ring, in which hydrogen is usually replaced by a more active moiety (e.g. hydroxyl, methyl or acetyl) . The variability in their biological properties and activities is related to the type and degree of the substitutes on the phenol ring. Since many of the natural phenolic compounds contain more than one phenol ring, such compounds are often called polyphenols .
At the moment, we know over 8000 different structures of plant phenolic compounds. Due to this huge number of compounds, it is important to use an effective classification system for their distinction. The most commonly used to distinguish phenolic compounds, groups them initially into flavonoid and non-flavonoid compounds. Both main groups are further divided as presented in Figure 3.
Most likely the largest class of polyphenolic compounds found in nature are flavonoids . Over 4000 structurally unique flavonoids were already identified from various plant sources . Primarily, flavonoids were recognized as pigments responsible for many colors that occur in autumn, since they can provide various hues of yellow, orange and red in flowers, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruits, etc., as well as the color of tea and red wine . Several studies have shown that many plants contain therapeutic amounts of flavonoids . These were (and still are) used in traditional medicine as anti-inflammatory, pain reducing, healing promoting, anti-allergic agents and others . Most of the pharmacological effects found in flavonoids can be related to their (almost common) strong antioxidant activity . They also act as free radical scavengers, can chelate metals, and are able to interact with enzymes, have an action on adenosine receptors and interfere with bio-membranes . Among the main motivations for this review are several studies reporting different flavonoids with beneficial properties for wound-healing .
The core molecular structure of flavonoids consists of two aromatic rings connected by a three carbon bridge . In plants, flavonoids often occur in association with sugar moieties as glycosides . The main sources of flavonoids in the diet are fruits and vegetables. They occur also in certain grains, seeds, and spices, as well as in wine, tea, coffee, cocoa, and herbal essences . All flavonoid compounds contain phenol-groups, which in general induces an antioxidant activity . Other actions are diverse-several structures reduce inflammation or carcinogenicity .
126.96.36.199. Non-flavonoid polyphenols
Non-flavonoid metabolites also comprise several subgroups (Figure 3) . Many of these compounds occur mainly as complicated biopolymers. In this, they are different from their flavonoid counterparts by lacking a defined primary carbon base, which results in unique chemical structures for respective polyphenols . An important subgroup of non-flavonoid compounds from plants are phenolic acids, which can be further divided into hydroxycinnamic acids (e.g. caffeic acid, chlorogenic acid, o-, m- and p-coumaric acids, ferulic acids, and sinapic acids), and hydroxybenzoic acids (e.g. gallic acid, p-hydroxybenzoic acid, protocatechuic acid, vanillic and syringic acids) . Both classes often occur in plants in the glycoside form. In plant tissues, phenolic acids can be bound to various compounds, e.g., flavonoids, fatty acids, sterols and cell wall polymers . Another widely distributed group of phenolic compounds in plants are tannins, which may occur as hydrolysable tannins (formed in the pathway of the phenolic acids with sugar polymerization) and condensed tannins (a combination of flavonoids) . Lignans are phenylpropanoid dimers, whereas the most commonly known ones include secoisolariciresinol, lariciresinol, pinoresinol and matairesinol . The most known and researched stilbene is resveratrol, which is present in many edible plant species (e.g. grapes, peanuts, and berries) . Resveratrol plays an important part in the plant defence against mechanical injury, pathogen infection, and UV radiation .
4.1.2. Essential oils
By definition, essential oils are concentrated hydrophobic liquids that contain volatile aroma compounds derived from plants . The term essential has not an analogous meaning as in the case of essential amino acids or essential fatty acids. In the latter cases, essential corresponds to a lack of mechanism for their respective synthesis in a specific organism, which also means that these have to be acquired by other means (e.g. diet) . In general, essential oils are extracted by distillation (e.g. by steam). Other processes include expression, solvent extraction, absolute oil extraction, resin tapping and cold pressing . Due to their (often) pleasant fragrance, they are commonly used as components in perfumes, cosmetics, soaps and other products, for flavouring food and drink, and for other similar applications . There are several essential oils derived from plants with high potential to be used in wound treatment . Some of the most important essential oils with proven beneficial effect on wound healing (either in traditional medicine or based on research studies), are described in more detail below.
188.8.131.52. Lavender oil
184.108.40.206. Chamomile oil
The wound healing aiding properties of chamomile (
220.127.116.11. Tea tree oil
The tea tree (
18.104.22.168. Thyme oil
22.214.171.124. Ocimum oil (basil)
Orafidiya et al. performed two studies regarding the potential use of ocimum oil derived from the leaves of
126.96.36.199. Other oils
Other less well-known essential oils with a proven beneficial effect on wound healing include the bark oil of
An overview of the main chemical components of the above described essential oils is depicted in Figure 4.
4.1.3. Other compounds with wound healing properties
Research on plant-derived compounds with potential use in wound healing drugs is a developing area in modern biomedical sciences. Scientists who are trying to develop newer drugs from natural resources are looking towards different regions, where there is a strong evidence of plant in traditional medicine (India, Africa, etc.) . Most of these herbal medicines are not isolated compounds, but rather extracts composed of several constituents, which synergistically aid the wound healing process . Not many have been screened scientifically for the evaluation of their wound healing activity in different pharmacological models and patients, but the potential of most remains unexplored . The most important groups of compounds were described above, whereas we briefly review some of the less commonly used compounds and groups.
Alkaloids are heterocyclic compounds that contain a nitrogen atom in at least one of the heterocycles . They usually have various potent biological activities and are of bitter taste . Some synthetic compounds of similar structure are also termed alkaloids. They are not that common in the plant kingdom, are represented by diverse chemical structures, and almost all show interesting properties for therapeutic use . Alkaloids are produced also by other organisms including bacteria, fungi and animals . Although alkaloids are not the first choice of chemicals to be used in relation to wound treatment, there are still some interesting plants that need further analysis due to their already proven potential for this purpose. Among the plants that produce alkaloids with potential beneficial effects on wound healing are the
This group of plant-derived compounds presents a complex mixture of lipid-soluble chemicals . These can be both non-volatile (e.g. diterpenoid and triterpenoid compounds) and volatile (mono- and sesquiterpenoids) . Resins are most commonly found in nature as part of various wood-derived structures, although they are also present in herbaceous plants . Among their common properties are a general stickiness, whereas their fluidity depends on the contents of volatile compounds . When exposed to air they harden. Among their beneficial biological activities for wound healing are the antimicrobial activity, but their actions depend on the composition of the chemical mixture. Resins are generally safe, but contact allergy may occur .
The common structural precursor of terpenoids is the five-carbon building block isoprene . Monoterpenoids are formed of two isoprene units, whereas sesquiterpenoids consist of three units. Both mentioned groups are commonly denoted as low-molecular-weight terpenoids, which are one of the most varied groups of plant products that include more than 25,000 compounds . The phenylpropanoid group of terpenoids is less common and is based on a nine-carbon skeleton, whereas their synthesis pathway differs from the other terpenoids . Compounds of all three mentioned groups have often strong odours and flavours, which is related to their properties (e.g. the lipophilicity and volatility) . Since they exhibit various biological activities, they are found in several herbal remedies . Of particular importance in relation to wound healing are their antibacterial and antiviral effects, whereas they possess also other activities like the antineoplastic activity, as well as stimulation gastrointestinal tract . They are not toxic unless they are concentrated as volatile oils . The plant family best known for these compounds is
188.8.131.52. Compounds with antimicrobial activity
Looking at plant extract to find novel antimicrobial compounds is interesting for clinical microbiologists for two reasons, namely, it is very likely that these phytochemicals will be sooner rather than later prescribed as antimicrobial drugs, and the public is becoming increasingly aware of problems with the over prescription and misuse of traditional antibiotics . It is reported that, on average, two or three antibiotics derived from microorganisms are launched each year . Phytochemicals with an antimicrobial activity can be divided into several categories, most of which were already described above. These include phenolics, terpenoids, essential oils and alkaloids . Among the other ones, we will briefly review also the lectins and polypeptides, as well as polyacetylenes.
First antimicrobial peptides were reported back in 1942 . Mostly, these compounds are positively charged and include disulphide bonds in their structure . One of the known possible mechanism of actions involves the formation of ion channels in the microbial membrane , while the other is related to a competitive inhibition of adhesion of microbial proteins to host polysaccharide receptors . Some of the most important subgroups of antimicrobial peptides include thionins, which are toxic to yeasts and Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria .
Polyacetylenes are another group of potential antimicrobial compounds with interesting properties. The compound 8S-heptadeca-2(Z),9(Z)-diene-4,6-diyne-1,8-diol was shown to be effective against
5. Plants with beneficial effect on wound healing, approved by the Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC)
Many plants and their extracts have great potential for the management and treatment of wounds. Natural agents induce healing and regeneration of the lost tissue by multiple mechanisms. The so-called phytomedicines are affordable and they cause minimal adverse effects. However, there is need for scientific standardization, validation and safety evaluation of plants of traditional medicine before these can be recommended for wound healing . Therefore, an extensive research has been carried out in the area of wound healing and management through medicinal plants .
The following paragraphs outline some medicinal plants and their properties that exhibit wound healing activity.
Figure 5 presents a summary of plants with proven beneficial effect on wound healing.
6. Outlook and future development
There are many challenges in relation to the potential future use phytochemicals in wound treatment. These are not the same as in the case of use of phytochemicals for other indications, but are still related to the respective compound/extract solubility, biocompatibility with the respective cells of the targeted tissue (in this case the skin with all its components), as well as the lack of preclinical and clinical studies related to its safety and efficiency testing. Poor bioavailability, which is often a limiting factor in the use of phytochemical for other purpose, is mostly not relevant for the case of wound treatment, where were mostly a local activity is enough. Of course, a successful elucidation of molecular targets and mechanisms of phytochemicals is the target for future research. Extensive knowledge about the preclinical performance of extracts, isolated and specific compounds is a prerequisite for successful pre-formulation studies and development of effective materials and prototype products with a high possibility to reach the patient in the near future.
The chemo-preventive properties of many phytochemicals are well known and have been already proven beneficial in treating various disorders, including skin diseases. Different phytochemicals can contribute to the skin protective mechanisms by quenching free radicals and reducing inflammation through the inhibition of cellular and humoral immune responses. In the last decades, several strong research groups performed extensive research with the aim of identifying specific compounds from plant extracts and their molecular targets. This will provide a sound foundation for future clinical trials in the development of phytochemicals as potentially important therapeutic agents.
Various plants produce secondary metabolites and other products that have beneficial effects on wound healing, including the enhancement of the skins natural repair mechanisms. Due to the possibility to produce different plant preparations for topical use, these have a huge potential in future therapeutic approach in wound care. Recent developments of novel extraction technologies, newly found knowledge about traditional use of various plants, as well as our steadily improving knowledge about wound healing physiology importantly contribute to the popularization of studies of herbs and herbal materials from the physiological and therapeutic point of view. This in turn contributes also to a steadily increasing number of herbal products for wound treatment. Considering also the increasing number of clinical studies related to the safety and therapeutic efficacy of herbal products, many more herbs have a bright future either in curative or preventative uses in wound healing. Based on our present knowledge, future studies should aim at the isolation and identification of specific active substances from plant extracts, which could also disclose compounds with better therapeutic value. Finally, the combination of traditional and modern knowledge seems to be the best approach to produce novel effective therapeutic interventions for wound healing with a significantly improved treatment efficacy, lowered side effects and costs.
The authors acknowledge the financial support from the Slovenian Research Agency for research core funding No. P2-0118 and P3-0036, and for the financial support through the projects No. Z2-8168 and J2-7413.
Conflict of interest
The authors declare no conflict of interest.
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